Principals label year-long suspension of embattled Scottish college's head ‘deeply concerning'

The almost year-long suspension of a principal at an embattled and controversy-ridden college raises “fundamental issues” and is a “deeply concerning state of affairs”, the education secretary was warned.

The Colleges Principals’ Group, a representative group of principals, has rallied round Aileen McKechnie and demanded the intervention of the education secretary after the South Lanarkshire College principal’s suspension, alongside that of interim clerk of the board of management Brian Keegan, to allow “various complaints” to be addressed.

In a letter, sent in mid-September to education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville and released through Freedom of Information requests, the group claims Ms McKechnie has never been made aware of the reasons for her suspension. This is disputed by the college, which said the complaint investigations will “conclude in the very near future”.

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Critics said the letter was “damning” and accused Ms Somerville of washing her hands of the case and failing to ensure effective governance of colleges in Scotland.

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Ms McKechnie was suspended a few weeks after ordering an investigation into misconduct allegations. This led to a report being published in September that recommended a host of improvements. Details published of a report showed staff were using college facilities to undertake work for friends.

Audrey Cumberford, principal and chief executive at Edinburgh College and the chair of the College Principals’ Group, asked Ms Somerville to ensure the suspension had seen rules applied “equitably and fairly”. She also urged the Government to “take steps to learn lessons” from the case to ensure future fair treatment.

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She said: “It is our belief this raises fundamental issues about good governance and the process relating to how college principals are treated in such circumstances, especially in respect of their very significant personal obligations to the Scottish Funding Council accountable officer.

"This is a deeply concerning state of affairs. The handling of the case appears at odds with how such matters are dealt with in the college sector more generally. We believe that it now needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency."

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Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville must act over claims made about South Lanarkshire College (Picture: Fraser Bremner/WPA pool/Getty Images)

Graham Simpson, the Scottish Conservative MSP for Central Scotland, described the letter as “damning” and one that raised “serious issues” about college governance.

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He said: "Principals are right to be concerned when one of their highly-respected colleagues has been suspended for a year, apparently unaware of the grounds for that action. There can be no justification for keeping somebody on gardening leave on full pay for a year, while also paying someone else to do their job. The cost has been astronomic.

"The principals are right to say that this raises serious issues about how they are treated, but Shirley-Anne Somerville has washed her hands of this case, hiding behind the Scottish Funding Council. I will be writing to Parliament's education committee asking for an inquiry into college governance on the back of this."

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A spokesperson for the college said: “Paul Hutchinson, chairing member, can confirm that the principal and the interim clerk to the board remain suspended and that the chair remains stood down from the board. All parties are fully aware of the reasons for the suspensions and the actions of the board, which is to conduct investigations into complaints, and these will conclude in the very near future.

"The investigations have taken longer than anyone would have wished, but this was necessary to ensure they were conducted fairly, equitably and in accordance with independent legal advice".

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers’ paramount interest is safeguarding the quality of learning at South Lanarkshire College, and high standards of governance are crucial in ensuring this. Those involved are aware of the allegations made and the process which is being undertaken to resolve that. It is important that due process is followed and the investigations must be allowed to conclude in a fair and transparent manner.

“The Scottish Funding Council, as the body with responsibility for investigating governance issues, will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to the Scottish Government.”

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